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Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle, also known as John O’Gaunt’s Castle, is a medieval impressive fortress located in the English county of Lancaster, overlooking the town of Lancaster and the River Lune. It is one of Britain’s most significant historic monuments, since it can be said to trace the history of justice, incarceration and penal reform for almost 1000 years, as it played a central role as a seat of justice and a gaol.

History of Lancaster Castle

In 79 AD, a Roman fort was built at Lancaster on a hill commanding a crossing over the River Lune. The layout of the town of Lancaster itself was influenced by the Roman fort, which stood as a bastion against the marauding forces of the ancient Pics and Scots tribes. After the Norman Conquest in the second half of the 11th century, Lancaster became part of the Earldom of Northumbria. In 1092, William II established a permanent border with Scotland further to the north, at the time of which it is believed that Lancaster Castle was first constructed on top of the Roman fort. It is thought that it was Roger de Poitou, the Norman lord in control of the Honour of Lancaster who was responsible for its construction. At the time, the structure would have been built of timber, incorporating the earthworks of the Roman fort into its defences. Roger de Poitou fled England in 1102 after having participated in a failed rebellion against King Henry I, after which the King confiscated Lancaster and its Castle.

The castle changed hands a number of times. King Henry I granted it to Stephen of Blois, his nephew and later subsequent King. In 1141, Stephen allowed David I of Scotland to occupy the castle in order to secure his northern frontier against possible turmoil due to the current civil war between him and Empress Matilda. The war came to an end in 1153 after it was agreed that Stephen would be succeeded by Empress Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet, who later became King Henry II. In 1164 Lancaster came again under the control of King Henry II. On his death, it passed on to his son Richard the Lionheart, who gave it to his brother Prince John.

The first record of the castle being used as a prison was in 1196, although the role became much more important later on. As of the 12th century, a Sheriff was appointed by the monarch to maintain the peace in Lancashire. In the late 12th or early 13th century the castle was rebuilt using stone instead of timber A ditch was dug outside the south and west walls, and the ‘King’s Lodging’, that is, what is known today as Adrian’s Tower, was constructed. Large sums are documented to have been spent for the construction of the gatehouse and the stone curtain wall in 1254.

The Duchy of Lancaster came into existence in 1351, when it was conferred by the King to Henry Grosmont. At the same time Lancaster was made into a County Palatine for Henry’s lifetime, meaning that the Duke had Royal powers within the county and could do practically anything that would otherwise had been the King’s privilege. The law courts were in the Duke’s hands, and he appointed the Sheriff, the judges and the justices of the peace, as well as all other senior officials. Henry died without a male heir, so both the title and inheritance became part of his daughter’s dowry. Through her marriage, she passed these on to her husband, John O’Gaunt, the third son of King Edward II and younger brother of the Black Prince. In 1377, the King recreated the Palatinate for John’s lifetime, and in 1390 the grant was extended to include John’s heirs. The Duke of Lancaster became one of the most important figures in the country.

When John died and King Henry IV ascended the throne in 1399, he became fearful of the power held by John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, whom he banished, after which he took the title of Duke of Lancaster for himself and immediately began adding to the gatehouse as well as making alterations to the top storey keep. Bolingbroke returned to England at the head of an army, reclaiming his Lancaster inheritance and acceding to the throne as King Henry IV. After becoming King, he passed a Royal Charter decreeing that the Duchy should be a distinct entity held separately from other Crown possessions and handed down through the Monarchy. And so it remains to this day.

Through the centuries, the castle has held thousands of prisoners, including criminals of all kinds, political prisoners, and individuals prosecuted for their faith. In 1612, during the reign of King James I, the castle was at the centre of a notorious trial, when nineteen people from the area of Lancashire were accused of witchcraft. The defendants were imprisoned and tried in the castle. These proceedings became known as the Lancashire Witch Trials.

The Lancashire Witch trials tried ten defendants from the Pendle locality, the so-called Samlesbury Witches, along with a number of others, amongst whom was also the well-known Padiham Witch. Most of the evidence given by witnesses was inconsistent, based on rumours and idle gossip. At the end of the three-day assize, a total of ten people were found guilty of witchcraft, sentenced to death, and hanged on the moor above the town. Among their number were two men and a woman in her eighties. Their crimes supposedly included laming, causing madness, and cursing people. The Lancashire Witch Trials are among the most famous witch trials in history, mainly because there is a very full accounting of them left to posterity by the Clerk of the Court, Thomas Potts. Politics and religion played an important part in the prosecutions, especially since this was a time of great tension and of anti-Catholic rhetoric.

During the Civil War, the castle was initially garrisoned for the Royalists, but it was taken by Parliament in 1642. In 1651, King Charles was proclaimed King of England in Lancaster. His army was defeated at the Battle of Worcester and King Charles was executed in 1649, after which Parliament ordered the slighting of the castle. The monarchy was restored in 1660 and King Charles II visited Lancaster Castle and released all the prisoner currently held there.

Since at the time it was the only Assize in the county, Lancaster saw a vast number of people pass through its doors, all accused of various crimes, many of which were until 1820, punishable by death.

It all started in 1195 when Richard I commissioned certain knights to preserve the peace in unruly areas. These were known as Keepers of the Peace and were the origin of the lay magistracy in England and Wales. In 1361, King Edward II further coined the title Justice of Peace, and conferred on these magistrates powers to preside over unruly persons. At the time, these lay magistrates had responsibility for administering the Poor Law, performing marriage ceremonies, building houses of correction, fixing wages and even building and controlling roads.

Until the Bankruptcy Act of 1866, Lancaster Castle housed between 300 and 400 debtors at one time. Insolvent debtors were required to work within the prison for their keep, receiving in return 3 ounces of bread, and four ounces of oatmeal daily, as well as one ounce of salt and 10 pounds of potatoes weekly. Debtors with their own money could choose their rooms, as well as pay for fire, candles, use of culinary utensils and other everyday needs. Debtors could have access to wine, beer and tobacco but not spirits. They could buy newspapers, food and clothing, and even follow their trades and professions from within the prison itself. They spent their days in the courtyard socialising. A debtor’s market was even held in the Castle Yard, where they could purchase meat, bread, groceries, fish, and other things to facilitate their life in prison. Convicted felons awaiting transportation to the colonies were entitled to a weekly ‘King’s Allowance’, though few ever received it.

Before the introduction of the Bortal System, that is, the English Reformatory system designed for youths between 16 and 21 years old introduced in 1902, children were regularly imprisoned along with adult offenders.

Lancaster was one of the first gaols in England to segregate its inmates by age and gender. Famous prisoners held at Lancaster Castle include Father Edmund Arrowsmith, a 27-year old Roman Catholic priest who was arrested in 1628 for the offence of saying Mass (which at the time was punishable by death) and George Fox, the founder of Quakerism.

During the last two decades of the century, Lancaster’s county gaol was rebuilt in a more Gothic style. Separate prison blocks were built for men and women. The Shire Hall and Crown Court were completed by 1798.

Those sentenced to death at the castle before 1800 were usually taken to Lancaster Moor and hanged. After the remodelling of the castle, it was decided that it would be more convenient to perform executions nearer to the castle. The spot chosen became known as the Hanging Corner. Between 1782 and 1865 around 265 people were hanged at Lancaster. The executions were often attended by thousands of people who crowded into the churchyard. The Capital Amendment Act of 1868 ended public executions, requiring criminals to be put to death in private, after which 6 executions were performed inside the castle, at first from the Chapel steps, and then later in a purpose-built execution shed on the inside wall of the Hanging Corner. The last execution, that of Thomas Rawcliffe who had murdered his wife, took place in 1910.

The prison closed in 1916 due to a national decrease in the number of prisoners, although during the first part of the First World War, it was used to hold German civilians and prisoners of war. Between 1931 and 1937, the castle was used by the county council to train police officers. Lancaster Castle was once again designated for use as a prison from 1954 onwards, when the council leased it to the Home Office. Lancaster was also used for high-security trials.

The castle formally opened as HM Prison Lancaster in 1955. In 2010, the Ministry for Justice announced its intention to close it and this was further confirmed in 2011. Although today the Crown Court continues to be located in the castle, closure of the prison allowed the castle to be opened to visitors and tourists as a permanent attraction in 2013.

Castle today

In its role as a Crown Court, today Lancaster Castle deals with the trials of more serious criminal offences, the sentencing of offenders committed for sentence by the magistrates’ courts, and appeals from lower courts. It remains a possession of the Crown, in fact, the Monarch always has the additional title of the Duke of Lancaster. Since HMP Lancaster Castle was decommissioned by the Ministry of Justice and the Castle was returned to the Duchy of Lancaster in 2012, the focus has very much been on the preservation and restoration of the historic buildings, as well as keeping the castle open to the public.

The first phase of works focused on making sure that the buildings were weather-proof and water-tight. In 2015, the Duchy further unveiled the restored Victorian clock-tower and re-roofed debtors’ workshops facing onto the central courtyard, In 2016, these workshops were further transformed into a modern office suite for Duchy stuff, and in 2017, it began a significant conservation project which involved the removal of the former Prison Visitors building and the opening up of the former Kitchen Courtyard beyond.

The largest medieval building in the castle is the Keep, which is also known as the Lungess Tower. It is four-storeys high, that is, 20 metres, having a shallow buttress at each corner. Its outer walls are three metres thick and there are two rooms on each floor. Although the upper part of the Keep was rebuilt in 1585, the original Keep itself dates back to the 12th century and is the oldest part of the castle.

Although the Keep is the largest medieval building, the Gatehouse is the most impressive. It has two semi-octagonal towers which rise 20 metres above massive sloping plinths as well as a portcullis and battlements built out over corbels. Another very important part of the castle is the so-called ‘Governor’s House’ which was erected between the Gatehouse and the Well Tower in 1788. In 1792, work began on the construction of the prison ward for female criminals. This is a four-storey tower with Gothic windows. The male felons’ prison was built between 1794 and 1796 and extends to the north of the Keep, being cut off from the outside world by high walls. Above it rise three four-storey towers with canted fronts and Gothic windows, where prisoners slept in separate cells. During the 19th century, the so-called ‘A Wing’ was also added to function as a male penitentiary. It has 18 cells per floor and extends over three floors.

The castle also contains the ‘Debtors’ Prison’ which was built between 1794 and 1796 and is a two-storey accommodation above which there is an open arcade with Gothic arches, giving access to the Castle’s main courtyard. There is also a dungeon basement containing a number of prison cells, as well as the Crown Court and Shire Hall. The Crown Court is oak-panelled and still features the original branding iron used on ‘malefactors’ appearing in the dock. This consists of a metal holdfast designed to immobilise the wrist and fingers, whilst a red hot branding iron embossed with the letter ‘M’ was applied to the brawn of the thumb. This identified the convicted person as a ‘malefactor’. The branding iron was last used in 1811. The courtroom is still in use today.

The Shire Hall is a ten-sided room whose construction was completed in 1800 and which sports a semi-circle of Gothic pillars which support a timber ceiling, as well as the arches of a plaster vault. It is still in use as a working courtroom on rare occasions, and displays one of the UK’s exhibitions of chivalric heraldry. The last major extension to Lancaster Castle was the Female Penitentiary, which was built in 1821 and consists of five tiers of cells, each with a window.

The Well Tower, also known as the Witches’ Tower is much older, since it was built in 1325 and contains two wells and three stone-flagged underground dungeons, where the Lancashire Witches were held prior to their trial in the castle in 1612.

A large-scale refurbishment of the castle has been underway since 2011. The latest phase will open up the former prison kitchen yard, and is due to be completed in 2019. This will create a new café and teaching centre within the castle complex.

The castle is currently open to the general public free of charge, although entrance is only permissible via an official guided tour. There is an exhibition which allows visitors to view the cells at their own pace, as well as a varied programme of events throughout the year. This includes theatre, music, dark history tours, as well as children’s activity tours, murder-mystery events, and more. The castle is also known to be a popular spot for ghost tours, since due to its macabre history, legends of supposed ghost sightings abound. Legend for example, talks of the Black Monk of Lancaster Castle, who haunts the prison grounds and is believed to have been hanged at the prison. Another popular ghost is that of the Pendle Witch, or Old Demdyke, who died in one of the cells within the Well Tower. Couples with a taste for the macabre can also opt to get married in the spectacular setting of the Shire Hall, which is a Georgian court building.

Opening Times of Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle is open 7 days a week (except over the Christmas/ New Year period) from 9.30am to 5.00pm, with guided tours running throughout the day.
In winter, tours normally operate from 10.30am to 3.15pm on weekdays and between 10.00am and 4.00pm on weekends. Tour times do however vary and are subject to change. These last approximately 60 minutes.

Text: Melisande Aquilina